North Florida Nonprofits and Funding

Yesterday the Florida Times-Union had an article about how nonprofits in Northeast Florida are handling the current funding environment.  The article is great for informing the public about current economic conditions, so if you get a change, read it.  The main thesis covered in the article is that nonprofits must think differently to be sustainable.  Great!

The article covered three main topics: partnerships, measuring results, and mission creep (which I’ll cover in a future posting).  While discussed, I would like to add a bit more to the conversation.

In regard to partnerships, I would say that nonprofits should form partnerships, as long as they are well thought out and all organizations in this partnership can have an alignment in their missions.  Also, there are many types of partnerships, from very informal to highly formalized, so what the partnership will look like needs to be planned in advance between all parties, along with an acknowledgment of the challenges that are present in partnerships.  (And there is a lot more to discuss when looking at the governance of the organizations and nonprofit leaders’ willingness to partner, especially when one organization has to give up control to another, but that can also be discussed in a future post.)

Also mentioned was the need for nonprofits to take a lead from Mayor Brown and “expand their outreach and put a spotlight on what they do.” I agree, nonprofits need to do this (more on this next when I discuss measurement).  However, since resources are finite, there will be a greater pull from more directions for those willing and able to donate (especially large organizations or large donors).  Complicating this is the inclusion of the Mayor in calling for donations and partnerships, and how he has the bully pulpit, especially in relation to smaller nonprofits.  And while these small nonprofits can develop professional-looking Web sites, it is difficult to attract traffic to the Web site, and once there, too often the information is lacking (yet another topic for more discussion in the future).  The pieces of information that I have found to be lacking the most are effectiveness measures and results, which brings us to the another main topic.

While many organizations are able to tell their story, and tell it well, few have numbers to demonstrate that the story is not what statisticians call an outlier.  That the story is not a fluke or luck that this happened, and that this is the normal outcome for people who use the services.  My research has caused me to analyze a lot of nonprofit Web sites, and they are not only lacking how they measure if a program is successful (why the goal of the program is for the year), but also output numbers (number of people served, for example) and the outcome of serving those people (much harder to track and measure).  My hope is that nonprofits are keeping track of these numbers (and many have to if their funding is received through grants).  Still, they do not let the public know how well they are meeting those goals on their Web site.

And one more thing about Web sites, you can have a fantastic Web site, but nonprofits have to remember that the information they chose not to include on the site can be just as telling as the information they do post on the site.  For instance, I went to a nonprofit Web site a couple weeks ago because I was interested in participating in one of its programs.  While it was a fabulous site with pictures, many stories, payment information, history, etc., it was lacking two important pieces of information: what it does with the money it receives (and it does receive a lot of money) and its tax form.  I went to Guidestar.com, a Web site that posts nonprofit tax forms for the public, and there was no form.  I contacted the organization asking if it filled a tax form yet (it received its tax exempt status in 2010, and has yet to file), and if it has, where I could find it.  I still have not heard from the organization.  Needless to say, I will not be participating in its events.

Another part of the article, while not the focus, I found to be important was that there are fewer nonprofits startups.  Instead of starting an organization, people have decided to work with existing organizations.  Last night in my Nonprofit Management class, a student noted how she just shut down a small nonprofit she started.  Last summer, she had a great idea, filled out the required paperwork, paid the fee, and *poof* she created a nonprofit.  At the same time, she was enrolled in my Nonprofit Financial Management course, where she realized that there is a lot more to running a nonprofit than originally thought.  She has decided to use the knowledge and skills gained in the Graduate NP Certificate program to work with existing organizations to help them become more efficient, measure result, and be accountable to the community.  This not only confirmed what the article noted, but also how the courses I am teaching are impacting the local nonprofit community, one student at a time.  As the sector calls for more professionalization in the field (outcome measurements, strategic planning, environmental scanning, partnerships, etc.), I am happy to be part of a program that is available to nonprofit leaders in Jacksonville to help them guide their organizations through these turbulent times.

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